“As an improv teacher, I’m much more interested in the therapeutic value than in the show business angle. I find teaching beginners to be the most fulfilling, ’cause it’s where the greatest personal transformations occur. There is a trajectory of joy in the first few classes that will never be repeated; they’re discovering that they, and the others in their new tribe, have magic powers. Literally – magic powers.”
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Jason Chin was a beloved improviser, teacher, director, and Associate Artistic Director of iO, whose sudden passing a year ago stunned the Chicago improv community.
You can also find his thoughts and ideas on An Improvised Blog, and JasonChinFTW, which covers improv, popular culture, and his own entertaining fiction. (We especially love the post he wrote about the long format, The Dream.)
Click below to hear him talk about why some people are innately good at improv, from the documentary Whether The Weather.
Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy: The Harold may be the most important improv book you’ve never heard of. It’s definitely the most comprehensive, meticulously-researched study of long form ever written.
Author Matt Fotis connects the dots from Atellan Farce in Ancient Rome to Vaudeville, Spolin, The Compass Players, Second City, The Committee, iO, Annoyance, UCB, and beyond.
But this is much more than a history book.
Fotis explores every facet of long form: the forms, teams, philosophies, personalities, work and performance styles that helped turn The Harold from an obscure art form performed in basements to the most important influence in comedy today.
Whether the slow comedy of Jazz Freddy, the “Fuck it” fearlessness of Annoyance, or the game-based power play of UCB, Fotis shows how The Harold inspired new forms, gave rise to new theatres, and pushed the boundaries of what’s possible.
The book also takes a closer look at key players in the community, including TJ & Dave, The Improvised Shakespeare Company, The Annoyance, UCB, and Octavarius.
Finally, it examines how The Harold has permeated pop culture. (We’re not sure whether Del Close would shudder or cheer at that statement.)
Shows like 30 Rock, The Office, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, podcasts like Comedy Bang! Bang!, and Improv4Humans, and films like Bridesmaids, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Anchorman all mark a dramatic shift from punchline-driven comedy to ensemble-based writing and performance. None of this would be possible without Del Close and Charna Halpern’s creation.
And while improv still suffers from diversity issues, what’s noticeable throughout the book is the enormous contribution of women. From Viola Spolin, to Elaine May, to Charna Halpern, to Susan Messing, to Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, this is an art form that’s been powerfully shaped by female perspectives.
(It’s sometimes easy to forget Mick Napier was the first to insist on equal casting of men and women at Second City.)
If you’d like a deeper understanding of long form, one that goes beyond scene work and structure, you’ll love this book. It’s an academic title (and priced accordingly), but you can purchase it for much less on Kindle here. If your improviser’s salary doesn’t stretch that far, check your local college library. If they don’t have a copy, ask them to order one.
Matt Fotis is an Assistant Professor and Co-Chair of the Theatre Department at Albright College. He’s won numerous awards, including The Mark Twain Award for Comic Playwriting from the Kennedy Center, The Dr. Henry P. and M. Page Laughlin Distinguished Faculty Award for Research, and UCM’s Theatre for Young Audiences National Playwriting Competition…but balances these accolades with his social awkwardness. Learn more at mattfotis.com.
Ely Henry is a Canadian actor/improviser/musician living and working in L.A He wrote this post for Canadians, but most of it applies whether you’re living in Winnipeg, Manitoba or Little Rock, Arkansas. You can follow him on twitter @ElyHenry
Every year I get a ton of people asking questions about moving to Los Angeles from Canada for acting. I usually go through the same list every time so I figured it would just make more sense to put it all in one easy-to-check note.
So. Here’s my thoughts.
Where are you at in your career?
First off, you need to see if this move makes any sense. If you’re coming down for acting and entertainment purposes, you need to see if there’s any interest in you down here.
If you’ve got an agent and you’re getting a lot of work or you’re doing a ton of live shows then you’re in a good spot to try and get out to L.A. However, if you don’t have an agent and aren’t doing a ton of live performance and just think L.A. might be a better chance…it’s going to be a lot harder. Not impossible, mind you, but much harder.
No sense moving to a place you’ve never been. Take a week or two and come down to Los Angeles to scope it out. You want to know what you’re going to get yourself into.
You also want to meet with as many managers and/or agents as you can to see if there’s even a point in you moving down from a business perspective.
This is the part that makes people the most uncomfortable, but it has to be done. If you’re serious about really trying to make L.A. work out, then you’ve got to ask for some help. Before your trip down to L.A., call everyone you know who might be able to help you set up meetings.
If you’ve got an agent, tell them you’re going down and ask them to hook you up with any managers they have down in L.A. Email any casting directors who’ve hired you before or who you’ve developed a good rapport with. Just a friendly email telling them you’re going down and asking for any advice they might have and if they know anyone that might be looking for a client like you. Simple. Best case, they have a friend who you can meet or you get some solid advice. Worst case, no response. No harm, no foul.
Ask any and all friends who’ve had success in L.A. for advice. Everyone’s got a unique experience and they might be able to help. Also, see if they’ve got anyone that would meet with you too.
It’s really important to have this set up before you come down. Otherwise, you spend the first six months to a year (at least) looking for representation. And that’s exhausting.
When to visit?
This, to me, is the most important part and the thing people get wrong most often.
If you’re coming to L.A. for the first time, don’t come down for Pilot Season. Literally one million people come to L.A. for Pilot Season. It’s madness. If you’re looking for an agent or manager during that time you’re going to be shit out of luck. They’re all busy pumping the clients they already have into as many rooms as possible. They won’t have time to meet with you.
Pilot Season is kind of all over the place but it’s safely from January to April.
When I first came down it was in May. Everything’s settled down by that time and it’s easier to get a meeting because everyone’s working on getting ready for the upcoming season of shows.
When to move?
Provided you’ve got adequate representation and you’re willing to leave behind socialized medicine, you’re ready to move.
Again, avoid Pilot Season.
Personally, I had great success coming down at the end of the summer. I came down August 29th and it was the perfect warm up before the insanity. All the pilots that are going forward have been picked up and beginning production. This means they’re all starting to audition for guest stars, co-stars and recurring parts. And since you’re not there with the throng of Pilot Season hopefuls you’ve got a better shot at the rooms and the gigs.
This is a really good tip I got from a friend after I got here: resumés in Canada are different than in the U.S.
In Canada roles are called “Principal” or “Lead” or “Actor”.
In the U.S. TV roles are referred to as “Guest Star,” “Co-Star” or “Lead,” and in films as either “Lead” or “Supporting.”
If you’re coming to the States then you want to make sure to redraft your resumé to fit these. Casting Directors out here don’t know what any of the Canadian terms mean, and it might make you miss out on some gigs as a result.
Here’s the basic breakdown: “Guest Star” is a character who’s integral to the plot of the episode. “Co-Star” appears in the episode in a non integral capacity. “Lead” is pretty self explanatory. Also note, by the way, that both “Guest Star” and “Co-Star” can be recurring. So if you’ve been on something for three episodes or more just put down “Recurring” in front of whichever you are.
Be generous with your “Guest Stars” and “Leads” (but don’t lie).
Visas and Citizenship
Honestly, I’m not the best person to talk to about this. I’m a dual citizen from birth. My mom is from the States so I was able to move down with no problems.
I’ve got lots of friends that came down on visas and that’s a whole different bag. If you can afford it, find an immigration lawyer and talk to them. This is one of those things that’s easier with money. Unfortunately.
This country is confusing when it comes to health stuff. Here’s what I did when I first came down. In Ontario there’s a way to get a travel extension on your OHIP for two years (at least, there was when I left, maybe it changed). This allows you to still return to Ontario for any medical treatment for two years. I’m sure other provinces have something similar.
Getting that and travel insurance for when you’re in L.A. is your best bet right away. The travel insurance will cover your ass in the event of emergency and if anything major happens, just hop on a flight back to Ontario and you’re all set.
After you’ve been here for a while…well, that’s its own thing. Thank god for Obamacare because it makes everything a lot easier and cheaper. When you’re ready for full insurance go to coveredcalifornia and look around.
Do I need a car?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: strongly recommend it. You can get around without one, but the transit here is pretty bad and takes a looooong time. You can get everywhere you need to but it’ll take a very long time. So if you’re trying to get to an audition or something…best to avoid public transport.
Where to live?
This is all dependant on what you’re into. I live in Los Feliz which is great because I can walk around. Lots of bars and restaurants within walking distance. Also a couple movie theatres. It’s great.
If you’re used to Toronto or any other big city with great walkability my neighbourhood suggestions are as follows:
If you’re more into the suburban vibe:
…basically anywhere in the valley.
Santa Monica or Marina Del Ray. But you’ll be far from everyone who loves you or cares about you.
L.A. is not for everyone. It’s a strange place. I hated it when I first got here. It took me a good year and a half to really settle in. But some people love it right away. You just have to find a solid group of people to explore it with and you’re in good shape.
Don’t overthink the city. Yes, tons of people come here to fulfill dreams and whatever, but at the end of the day it’s a city like any other. People, food, bars…whatever. Just look at it like you would any other place and don’t get caught up in the “HOOOOOLLLLYWOOOOOD” mentality.
“No one’s saying every scene has to be ‘Happy Puppy Goes To Kitty Town.'” – David Razowsky on conflict in improv
After years of being told to “work on my weaknesses,” at home, in school, and at work, I stumbled across this startling piece of advice:
Instead of focusing all your energy on things you don’t like or aren’t good at, focus on your strengths and get better at those.
Think about it. If you constantly focus on weaknesses, you’re effectively spending your time preoccupied with a negative. What if, instead, you spent your time getting great at things you enjoy?
Last year I got an email from my childhood best friend. When I read this, I laughed out loud:
“I remember we were going to be famous writers and those crazy plays we put on in grade three for the wonderful and patient Miss Van der Woude, and one in particular in which I was wearing Francis Walch’s glasses and you diverted from the script and went rogue chasing someone around the set for 10 minutes until Miss VW said ‘Enough is enough!’ and calmed everybody down with a good old maths equation.”
Four decades years later, all of those things (writing, comedy, improvisation) have taken centre stage in my life.
“But I already know I love improv,” you say. “How do I get better at that?”
Be creative as only you can.
If you’ve ever watched Chopped, you know that even world class chefs don’t excel at everything. Faced with the same ingredients, one chef will make flavours sing. Another will demonstrate a flair for presentation, while another might surprise with their out-of-the-box thinking.
The same goes for improv.
Cameron has natural acting ability. He’s also very comfortable with silent scenes. I, on the other hand, can count on that hand the number of silent scenes I’ve done. But I’m really good at initiating, editing, and giving context.
Find the things that make you excited, and become a master at those.
If you watch any long-running team perform, you can see the different personalities at play. Certain members do certain things more often, and that’s OK. Maybe one has training in clown, while another has a background in singing. They both bring something fun to the party.
The New York Times ran a piece last week on TJ and Dave. Even those guys have their own particular style, things they each do exceedingly well. TJ doesn’t try to be Dave, and Dave doesn’t try to be TJ.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take classes, workshops, or try to improve your skills. But if you’re constantly beating yourself up for not being brilliant at every part of improv, it’s time to give your inner critic a big cup of shutthehellup.
What makes improv so magical is the collaboration and diversity of skills and talent. When you allow yours to shine, the universe will applaud.
(For more on this, see How To Succeed At Anything By Being Yourself.)
Your favourite improv nerd already owns the Game of Thrones box set, a sonic screwdriver, and every volume of Axe Cop.
Fresh out of ideas? Well relax. There are still a few goodies we guarantee they’d be happy to find in their stocking.
Second City Gift Certificates
Experiential gifts are some of the coolest things you can give. So why not share the joy of clapping along to Big Booty with a bunch of strangers?
Like a lot of people, we fell in love with improv at Second City Training Centre. From Level A for beginners, to writing, acting, and specialty classes, you can give a gift certificate for any of SCTC’s awesome courses. Click here for info on Chicago, LA and Toronto.
Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy
If your friend lives in Chicago, a gift certificate for any of Jimmy Carrane’s Art of Slow Comedy classes is just the ticket. Click here to purchase.
Authors Besser, Roberts and Walsh have poured 20+ years of knowledge into this mutha of all improv books. Coming in at just under 400 pages, it covers everything from two-person scenes to Harold structure, and was designed for beginners as well as seasoned improvisers.
We’ve said it before: no one writes more engagingly about improv than Mick Napier. (For our review of the book, click here.) Like UCB’s manual, Improvise appeals to both novice and seasoned performers. And at 144 pages, it’s the perfect companion for those improv festival road trips.
If you’ve ever seen TJ and Dave perform, you know you’ve witnessed something profoundly unique and brilliant in the world of improv.
Watching them play is like a master class in itself. Which is why every improviser should own a copy of Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, a documentary of the duo performing live at the Barrow Street Theatre. We’ve probably seen it a dozen times, and still learn something with each viewing.
True, it’s not improv. But Mr Show With Bob & David redefined comedy for a generation.
Younger audiences may recognize Bob Odenkirk from Breaking Bad, or David Cross from Arrested Development. But between 1995 and ’98, the two of them created one of the most subversive sketch shows ever imagined. Multiple viewings are a must, due to the insane amount of creativity jammed into each episode.
Without Larry Sanders, there would be no Office. No Alan Partridge. Even, some suggest, no Deadwood or Oz. In fact, it’s impossible to conceive of a world TLSS didn’t influence.
Long before reality TV, The Larry Sanders Show was a groundbreaking satire combining social commentary and “faux reality,” with a cast so talented it boggles the mind. Garry Shandling, Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk, Wallace Langham and Sean Thompson shared the screen with some of the greatest actors and musicians on the planet.
The box set contains all 89 episodes, plus commentaries and a feature-length documentary. Give it to really someone special…if you can bear to part with it.
Few writers can make us laugh out loud. Augusten Burroughs is one. Michael Ian Black is another. And Mick Napier is a third.
There’s an honesty to Napier’s writing that makes it instantly relatable. (And hilarious.) But beyond being funny, it’s also instructive.
If you have any interest in improv, comedy, theatre, or directing, do yourself a favour and read his personal journal about the making of Paradigm Lost.
Update: Unfortunately it seems to have been deleted, but you can still read selected passages here.
Man oh man.
It’s not often you get a chance to give something back to one of your heroes. Someone who’s given so much to improv, and to improvisers worldwide.
So when we heard about the Kickstarter to build a new home for The Annoyance Theatre in Chicago, we couldn’t wait to share it. If you’ve ever read Mick’s books, or taken an Annoyance intensive, or have any interest in improv whatsoever, we hope you’ll check it out.
“I thought we shared a thing, and that you might choose to express that thing with a hug.” “I chose a hug in my way, which is to come closer.”
“We need more ice! We don’t, but I love saying that.”
“You park a police car in front of your place, you’re probably gonna be OK. Put cops in it, even better.” “Hey Jerry! Someone just stole our police car.”
“Winter’s an OK season.” “Tell that to Napoleon!” “I don’t talk to him.”
“Guys, it’s pro bono.” “What?” “It’s like when a lawyer takes a job for some shitbag that can’t pay.”
“I gotta talk to the three…uh, whattayacallits…the, y’know…three uh…” “Musketeers?” “I don’t know what they are. No, I wouldn’t give them that…” “Little pigs?”
“Let’s put some Asia on this goddamn jukebox!”
“Ben Franklin was a great man. Not handsome, but got laid constantly. Constantly.”